[JPL] With respect to the memory Dave McKenna

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Sun Oct 19 02:20:28 EDT 2008

Here's a note I sent to a Dave McKenna memorial page tonight.  The great pianist died earlier today at age 78.  His sister Jean noted that he'd enjoyed the Red Sox Game 5 victory on Thursday night.  Dave composed two tunes in tribute to Ted Williams, "Theodore the Thumper" and "Splendid Splinter," and was notorious for his habit of listening to Sox games from a concealed transistor radio while he played piano at the Copley Plaza and other Southern New England saloons.

I used to see Whitney Balliett at Dave's gigs on the Cape and at Bradley's.  One of Balliett's most affectionate New Yorker profiles was his piece on McKenna entitled "Super Chops," which appeared around 1979.  It begins, "Dave McKenna's life pivots on paradox."  Here's one that comes to mind for me: When I began seeing McKenna as a teenager, I was amazed at how little attention nightclub patrons paid to his playing, and dismayed at how difficult it often was to hear his thunderous attack over the din of conversation in these rooms.  (Note: This was well before Mr. Cunningham began insisting on silence for the performers at Bradley's.)  But when Terri Gross interviewed Dave on Fresh Air years ago, she mentioned this same annoying phenomenon, and asked if it bothered him.  "Not at all," he replied.  "When they're quiet, I get nervous."

I'll feature a good deal of McKenna's music on Monday night.


Sent: Saturday, October 18, 2008 8:36 PM
Subject: With respect to the memory Dave McKenna

Please accept my condolences for your loss of Dave McKenna.

I used to see Dave on a regular basis on the Cape, at the Copley Plaza in Boston, with Ruby Braff at the Regattabar, and at Bradley's, where I'd hang till the last note was struck and often get a lift down to Spring Street from Dave and whoever was driving him, sometimes Frank Tate.  Especially memorable were the times when Zoot Sims would arrive at Bradley's around 2 a.m., mount a barstool, and play duets with Dave.  This was around the time they recorded together for Chiaroscuro.  I also ran into him several times at Fenway Park.  And most memorably, when I was visiting Paris in January 1991, I ran into Dave and his wife Frankie on the street where I was staying; he'd played some holiday gigs in Germany and then come to Paris for sightseeing.  

The last time I saw Dave was on his 70th birthday, May 30, 2000, at a church in Belchertown, Mass. where he played a Sunday afternoon concert.  His playing was as brilliant as ever, but he was in no mood for celebration.  When the emcee proposed that we sing "Happy Birthday" to welcome Dave back for his second set, he shot a ray that said, "Don't dare!"  And no one did.  Afterwards he attended a reception at the producer's home, and was surprisingly garrulous.  That was the last I saw of him, and I believe it was one of his last performances anywhere.

I first heard McKenna at The Columns on Rt. 28 in West Dennis around 1970.  I was a 17-year-old passing for 21, already fanatical for Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Chicago Blues, and the jam sessions I'd catch every week at the Kitty Kat Lounge in my hometown of Worcester.  But seeing Dave, Dick Johnson, Lou Colombo, even Bobby Hackett on occasion, at these Cape Cod roadhouses was a revelation.  To discover music of this calaber played with such beauty and passion by master musicians who had such low national profiles at the time, and whom no one seemed to pay attention to, gave me a whole new insight on the jazz life.  In many ways, their relative obscurity was one of the things that fueled my desire to pursue a career where I might bring a little exposure to their great work. Now, with all due respect, I can tell you that it's been an honor to play Dave's music on the radio for the past 30 years.    

Kindly keep me posted on plans for his funeral or memorial service.  


Tom Reney
"Jazz à la Mode"
Monday-Friday, 8-11 p.m.

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NPR News and Music for Western New England
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tr at wfcr.org

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